Thud: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tone-deaf remark on her money woes

Hillary Rodham Clinton listens before signing a copy of her new book for a woman Tuesday at Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York.
Hillary Rodham Clinton listens before signing a copy of her new book for a woman Tuesday at Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York.
(Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press)

Here is an iron-clad rule of American politics: If you are a millionaire with multiple houses, never, under any circumstances, discuss your financial struggles. You don’t have any financial struggles.

The John McCain Corollary: Never admit you don’t know how many houses you own.

The Ann Romney Corollary: Never illustrate your starving student years with a story about how you had to sell stock to pay the rent.


As my colleague Maeve Reston writes, Hillary Clinton kicked up a fuss Monday night after telling ABC’s Diane Sawyer that when she and Bill left the White House in 2000, they were “dead broke.”

Here is a transcript so you can see the context of the exchange:

Sawyer: “It has been reported you’ve made $5 million making speeches, the president’s made more than $100 million.”

Clinton: “You have no reason to remember, but we came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy. Bill has worked really hard and it’s been amazing to me. He’s worked very hard, first of all, we had to pay off all our debts which was, you know, we had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and pay you have at debts, and get us houses and take care of family members.”

That is a tone-deaf statement, on a couple of levels.

First, any ex-president or ex-first lady has the ability to make princely sums of money because: White House. Sure, they can devote themselves to writing books and humanitarian causes like Jimmy Carter has done with Habitat for Humanity. But history shows they are more likely to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, who inaugurated the tradition of the post-presidency money grab.

George W. Bush has managed to present himself as a former president who has holed up in Texas with a canvas and paintbrush, but has in fact been on the speaking circuit earning many millions of dollars since he left office. Bill Clinton has chosen to engage both in humanitarian work, with his Clinton Global Initiative, and the lucrative speaking circuit. More power to all of them.

Second, choosing to make money by giving speeches is not a “struggle,” especially for a Clinton. This is what Clintons do. They talk. And talk. They are wonks who have often said they love nothing more than to sit around and talk about policy. Having spent some time with Chelsea Clinton on the campaign trail in 2008, I can attest that this is a genetic trait they have also passed on to their daughter. Yeah, sure, keeping a busy schedule can be taxing. But talking is not digging ditches.


I am sure the Clintons have struggled. They probably struggle over coordinating their schedules, or over which homes to purchase in Washington and New York, where they moved so Hillary could run for U.S. senator. They might have struggled about how to manage their marriage. But they did not struggle, and never will have to struggle, to earn money.

It is surprising that a politician of Hillary Clinton’s long experience would allow herself to become defensive about getting rich, that she hadn’t prepared a more polished answer to inevitable questions about outlandish speaking fees.

The polished answer was not that she and Bill have “struggled.” The polished answer was that she and Bill have been blessed with a fantastic life and they are grateful for all the opportunities that have come their way. “And we pay all our taxes!”

Having spent the weekend curled up with Hillary Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices,” a memoir of her four-year stint as secretary of State (my review is here), it’s pretty clear that one of the things she loved about the job was that it kept her off the political battlefield.

Her first foray back into the world of American presidential politics -- and let’s be honest, the book tour for “Hard Choices” is pretty much that -- reminded me of an anecdote in her new book.

In 2009, Clinton writes, Congress authorized a massive aid package for Pakistan, and many Pakistanis were angry because the aid came with “too many strings attached.”


She set off for Pakistan, to “take on the anti-American sentiments” in a series of town hall-style meetings and media roundtables. Her staff was dubious. “You’ll be a punching bag,” they warned.

“I smiled and replied, ‘Punch away.’ ”

If she decides to run for president in 2016, that may as well be her motto.